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Republic of Cinema: A Book on Joe

"My sense is that Joe and his films bring out the best in people.  And that his swift rise to prominence, to the upper ranks of the cinema republic has not lessened but strengthened his - and our - desire for films, and a film culture, where things are done differently, dreamily, democratically." —Alex Horwath, p. 6

The series of books put out by FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen, devoted to the likes of Romuald Karmakar, Gustav Deutsch, and James Benning (among other people and topics) has done well in its recent-ish collection on Apichatpong  Weerasethakul.  Before getting to the content, it's a fine object—matte paper, almost square in its dimensions, double columned text, and tasteful photographs in color throughout.  The Thai tyro has risen even further in the ranks of international art cinema in the wake of his Cannes Palme d'Or for the tremendous Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010).  So the time is ripe for robust discussion of the work, and here is a good entryway.  Early in the book, editor James Quandt writes that he "will use Apichatpong and Joe interchangeably for the simple sake of variety."  I'll follow his cue.

The first time I, myself, heard of Apichatpong Weerasethakul was around the end of 2000, when Kent Jones' top ten lists for ArtForum and Senses of Cinema came out.  On Mysterious Object at Noon, Joe's first feature-length work, Jones wrote: "You could call this guy the Thai Straub, but I think he's better."  High praise indeed, for this young guy out of the Art Institute of Chicago with mostly short films under his belt.  In the decade that has followed Jones' (and others') early esteem, Apichatpong hasn't developed much along strictly Straubian (and Huilletesque) lines.  Not unless one limits the comparison to "deliberate" pacing and frequent scenes of beautiful, quiet, hilly woodlands.  But Apichatpong's work has come to stand—especially, perhaps, after that Cannes coup - as one of the most public faces/features/facets of "slow cinema."  By professing to like or dislike Joe one can provisionally align oneself with an entire taste culture.  (The same goes for, say, Bela Tarr and Pedro Costa.)  Film culture always produces these lines in the sand (e.g., Mark Peranson or Armond White).  Whether the result of a provocation is thought, ire, or both is a volatile question.

The thoughtful essays collected in this book—the centerpiece of which is Quandt's own ninety pages on Apichatpong's corpus to publication date—represent a range of interlocking approaches to director's methods, themes, obsessions, and biography.  Writings by Joe himself, and an interview, mingle with others' contributions which are less specific than the book's subject itself(Apichatpong) but broad enough to point in a lot of different directions.  Karen Newman covers the director's installation work (a welcome inclusion); Tony Rayns examines his work, touching upon sexuality and also class identity; Benedict Anderson, the major scholarly authority on nationalism and Southeast Asia, provides a fascinating discussion of the domestic reception of Sud pralad (Tropical Malady).  Mark Cousins and Tilda Swinton write eloquent letters to one another on Joe's cinema.  Whether belletristic or (in the case of Anderson) ethnographic, the approaches in this book are united by palpable affection for the work. 

Above, I gestured to Armond White's provocative, sneering review of Boonmeeso much for Horwath's suggestion that Joe brings out the best in people!  In fact it brings up an interesting point about Apichatpong's reception among the "cognoscenti" who "scoff at the expression of Christianity in cinema."  Examination of Buddhism in Apichatpong's art, at least among those publishing in English, seems sadly overgeneralized.  This shortcoming is played out in numerous chapters of the Film Museum's book, as well.  Respect and love for Joe's work is clear.  But at the same time there's an imbalance in the ways that some critics here discuss his influences or predecessors when they're Western, on one hand, and Asian or Thai, on the other.  The former category is always specific and bespeaks the critics' erudition (or at least good taste).  Joe's "local" influences tend to be identified on the order of the wholly national, the generically "Oriental" even—Thai (Siam), Buddhist, etc.  The book goes into relatively little detail indicating that "Buddhism" can refer to a non-monolithic range of doctrines and practices.  What does Quandtmeans when he writes that Joe's whole oeuvre "surely qualifies as a Buddhist version of a Gesamtkunstwerk," for example?  Why the adjective Buddhist?  Or on the next page: "Such a strict binary form initially seems an oddity, more akin to western rationality or Cartesian thinking than to Buddhist holism."  Can't Buddhism be addressed in some depth rather than mentioned, wholesale, from time to time as a vague feature of Joe's work?  Might Thai-ness embody something even richer than the Bangkok-versus-rural distinction?  It's not that the (Euro-American) writers who contribute to this volume consciously think along these lines.  Quite the contrary, I'm positive.  I think instead it's a function of unequal distribution of global knowledge and publicity pressing upon upon a filmmaker and nation that are—were—not so publicly visible in world film culture until fairly recently. 

When nations rise to prominence in world film culture, as we've seen with various recent vogues for Romania, Argentina, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand, there's a scramble not only to see these films but to process them, to say something about them.  Yet few "outsiders" to any of these countries find themselves equipped to act as translators and bridge-builders—or Serge Daney's passeurs.  Instead, one acquires a few basics and then proceeds from there.  In the case of Thai film one can download digital copies of a couple Rattana Pestonji classics, peek in on some key websites, and see new installments in the oeuvres of Apichatpong, Wisit Sasanatieng, Ong Bak, and so on.  From there, understand that there are references to Buddhism and perhaps to Americanization.  It can be a bit vague.  By comparison, the Western references can be distinctive, even brilliantly counter-intuitive (Eggleston and Welty are two comparisons in this book, for instance, and even Rossellini's wonderful La Macchina Ammazzacattivi (1943) gets a mention!).  Frankly I'd like to see the same level of specificity and unpredictability when it comes to speaking about Joe as an Asian filmmaker—even if that means there will be some references to lesser-known, to an American, points of Thai history or Buddhism I'd have to actually look up if I wanted to understand more comprehensively.

Kong Rithdee works in just this fashion with regard to Thai culture and cinema.  As he points out in his very insightful contribution, debates about Thai-ness and Buddhism also mark Joe's reception in Thailand.  But rather than being the consequence of internationalism and "postcolonial" legacies, the discourse "was aimed specifically at the Thai public."  People were skeptical that Apichatpong's cinema could be more than a ruse, more than obeisance to a European art film paradigm.  Who, after all, can lay claim to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's aesthetic?  The easiest thing is always to presume that we know exactly what we are dealing with, where it has come from, and thus whether we can draw the proper line in the sand relative to it.  If we over-emphasize either the Euro-art slowness or the Thai-Buddhist poise of work like ThirdworldMysterious Object at NoonTropical Malady, or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, we dishonor the films themselves.  What use is it to substitute readymade contexts when the films themselves are always inviting a viewer into experiences which reach the limits of verbalization, and court the extraordinary?  Admirably, I think, the essays in Quandt's book move toward this quality, persistently attempting to address it.

While "slow cinema," the festival circuit, and the online networks that facilitate and publicize them are very much global affairs, there remain very real regional distinctions still between different parts of the world.  "Global film culture" is still absolutely a work in progress, and as such Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a fine indication of the brilliant criticism as well as the inevitable impasses that will result from such endeavors.  I am not saying this is a totally good or totally bad thing.  Surely it's better to bring our own knowledge to bear on films, forthrightly, than it is to fake the funk (as they say).  The point is simply that we are always limited and there are always inherited imbalances of power even when film culture appears more mobile, more global, more open-access than ever before.  There's always something more to learn, more to see, more to try to appreciate.  In other words, "stay hungry, my friends."

***

 James Quandt, ed., Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Vienna:  FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen, 2009)

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We haven’t said “fake the funk” since Main Source did in 1992. But thanks for the good memories! All ribbing aside, nice book review. Makes me interested to read it, especially given that I’ve never seen any of “Joe’s” films. And I didn’t know that he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. I’m sure that’s the crown jewel in their marketing materials!
Great write-up, Zach, particularly for its position regarding the limitations of Euro-American perspectives in evaluating work as unique and original as Apichatpong’s. Do you offhand know how readily available this volume currently is?
This is a really good book. All the writing is solid, especially Quandt, and it’s great having work from the auteur himself. Gorgeous presentation, also.

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